Last February, my friend and colleague Dave Chang and I travelled to the hamlet of Black Creek, north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Our purpose: to interview Charles Brandt–hermit, artist-bookbinder and award-winning ecologist. (The interview will be published in v. 29 of The Thomas Merton Annual (2017).
Today, November 5, at the Roman Catholic parish in Campbell River, BC, he will celebrate and be celebrated for the fifty years he has spent as a hermit, originally at Merville, soon afterward at Black Creek, where he lives in his hermitage, Merton House. Now 93, he says, “I’m looking towards eternity now . . . . I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling.” He is a beautiful old man, a member of a category special to me which includes such others as Dan Berrigan, Trevor Huddleston, Chatral Rinpoche, Bill Shannon and Marie-Bernard Nielly.
His journey to Black Creek took many turns. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, of Danish-English heritage, his family moved to a farm not far from the city when he was five years old. Between high school graduation in 1941 and 1951, he undertook post-secondary studies, interrupted by four years (1942-46) in the US Air Force. He encountered the Episcopal Church during his military service (the family was Methodist), and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church while at Cornell. Over the next four years, he explored Anglican religious communities, and was ordained an Anglican priest in England in 1952 (interestingly to me, at Mirfield, the monastic seminary I attended in England some years later). During this time of searching, however, he had been questioning whether the Anglican Church was truly his spiritual home; and in January 1956, aged 33, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
That Easter he visited the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, and met Thomas Merton. His intention was to ask to be a novice at Gethsemani, where Merton was the novice master. Merton, however, said to him: “We could make a monk of you, but not a contemplative”–which is what he wanted to be. He then went at Merton’s counsel to the abbey of New Melleray, in Dubuque, Iowa, for nine years, but without making final monastic profession, and continued to explore other expressions of religious life. In 1965, the same year that Merton entered the hermitage at Gethsemani, he moved to Vancouver Island, to join others attempting to establish a hermit community there. Received into the diocese of Victoria by Bishop Remi de Roo, he was ordained priest as a hermit-monk in 1966, at the age of 43.
From 1973 until 1984, he lived away from Black Creek, undertaking advanced studies in bookbinding and archival paper conservation in the United States, Switzerland, Italy and England, then working in this field in Canada; during these years, his apartment was his hermitage. Having returned to his own hermitage in July 1984, he earns his living by bookbinding, and has also been active in ecological restoration work on the Oyster River, where his hermitage is located. He has received wide recognition for this, and a number of environmental awards. When people express a wish to keep in touch with him, he adds their names to his listserv, and regularly sends them photographs of birds, animals or plants from his immediate environs. He welcomes local people to visit him at the hermitage, and to share his life of contemplation and love of the natural order. He has arranged that on his death, possession of his 30-acre property will pass into the care of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, except for the hermitage and the road which leads to it, which will be entrusted to the Roman Catholic diocese of Victoria.
We began our interview with a very basic question: “Why be a hermit in the 21st century?” Here’s his answer. “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ [i.e., the Christian community, and beyond this, the entire human community]. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world. I’m very keen on the natural world, and I think that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community or perish in the desert, as Thomas Berry [Catholic priest, cultural historian, ecologian] says. Praying, living a life of solitude and stillness, quiet, is good for my soul; it’s good for everybody, I think.”
Two points from this. First, he sees what he is doing, his way of life, as something he is doing on our behalf as well as for himself. He lives peacefully, in a peaceful place, as a kind of counter-witness to or compensation for the frantic lives so many of us live. Second, on the global level, he models the hope that we will learn to live in “a single sacred community” in which as humans we will honour our fellow-creatures of other species as well as the planet itself. Vaclav Havel, former president of then-Czechoslovakia, said something very similar: that the only way we would meet the ecological challenge of our time would be to learn to regard the earth as sacred, and to treat it as such.
“I walk out, he says, “and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community.” His life and his work are one. In living as a hermit in communion with the surrounding natural order, he is modelling in his own way what all of us need to learn how to do in our own way–take our places as members of the single sacred community of which he speaks.
Charles Brandt, hermit, ecologist–ecologian!–celebrating a half-century today of commitment to your calling: ad multos annos!